The NBA pre-season is still a month away, but after a busy off-season rosters have taken shape and we’re beginning to get a sense of which teams are going to contend, which teams are going to be downright awful and which are somewhere in between. As it stands, here are the top eight teams in the Eastern Conference heading into the 2013-14 season.
Make no mistake about it, after looking so good during their almost record-breaking 27-game winning streak, the post-season was a grind for the Heat. There was no Moses Malone-esque “fo fo fo” run to the title, but a brutally challenging seven-game series with the Pacers, and then a back-from-the-brink-comeback versus the Spurs. The Heat were one missed Kawhi Leonard free throw, one offensive rebound and one miracle Ray Allen 3-pointer (one of the greatest shots ever, in fact) from losing their crown. When all was said and done, however, the Heat were champs. And that’s really all that matters.
With the greatest player on planet earth, LeBron James, still leading the way, the Heat remain the best team in the East. That doesn’t mean they’re without weakness, however. Last year’s Indiana series underscored their vulnerability on the boards—Chris Bosh just isn’t a centre—and teams will look to exploit that again this season. However, Greg Oden is a low-risk/high-reward addition that could help with rim defense, and the Heat still have the potential to remain the most efficient offensive team in the NBA—all corner 3s, lay-ups and dunks.
The biggest threat to Miami’s chances of making a fourth straight NBA Finals are the Indiana Pacers—big, strong and immensely talented. In 2011-12 the Pacers had a breakout year, losing to the Heat in the second-round, and last season they made the next jump; making it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals and giving Miami all they could handle. A big reason for their success was the emergence of Paul George as an elite perimeter defender and a more than capable offensive threat; and most importantly, Roy Hibbert’s development into a top-five NBA centre. Hibbert was practically un-guardable in last year’s playoffs—devastating on the offensive boards, and a much-improved player with his back to the basket.
This season, Hibbert and George, as well as the newly-signed David West, will once again lead the Pacers, but the team is much deeper than they were last year. Indiana’s biggest weakness last season was their woeful bench—if their starters got into foul trouble it was a big problem. In the off-season management made some huge upgrades, however. Gone are D.J. Augustin, Tyler Hansbrough and Gerald Green; in comes C.J. Watson, Chris Copeland (a big threat from 3) and the offensively talented Luis Scola. What’s more, Danny Granger, Indiana’s top scorer from two seasons ago looks set to return from injury, giving the team a much bigger scoring threat.
No team had an off-season quite as dramatic, and successful, as the Brooklyn Nets. In a blockbuster trade with the Boston Celtics, the Nets brought in future Hall-of-Famers, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, as well as sixth-man specialist, Jason Terry. In return they got rid of Kris Humphries, Gerald Wallace and MarShon Brooks, as well as a host of draft picks. It’s a move that’s distinctly short-term in its outlook: Instant gratification, as opposed to patient long-term planning. But the Nets, with the ambitious Mikhail Prokhorov at the helm, want success now—the future and the salary cap be damned.
The addition of Pierce and Garnett adds valuable toughness (a glaring need after last season’s dismal post-season exit) and playoff experience, and instantly vaults the Nets into title contendership—assuming that Garnett’s used sparingly during the regular season and isn’t run into the ground. And in the running for the sneakiest pick-up of the off-season was the addition of Andrei Kirlenko, who signed for a measly $3 million, after opting-out of $10 million in Minnesota. AK-47, Pierce, Garnett and Terry join Joe Johnson, Deron Williams and Brook Lopez to form an extremely talented core. The biggest question mark, however, remains first year coach, Jason Kidd, and how quickly he can adapt to the rigours of NBA coaching.
The Chicago Bulls are team with an incredibly high ceiling—if things go well, they could be a legitimate contender to Miami’s Eastern Conference crown (no team other than Indiana has played the Heat harder in recent years) and perhaps to win the whole thing. Last year, without their best player, Derrick Rose, Tom Thibodeau did an admirable job keeping his team competitive, relying on his genius defensive schemes to grind out games and even upset the favoured Nets in their first-round series. Joakim Noah was a beast at both ends of the floor—a legitimate contender for Defensive Player of the Year—Carlos Boozer went some way to silencing his critics (almost) with great play on the offensive end all season, and Jimmy Butler emerged as a future star. Butler’s already an elite perimeter defender with a great touch from beyond the arc.
In the off-season Chicago went some way towards addressing a big weakness from last season: their anemic 3-point shooting. They picked up Mike Dunleavy Jr. on the cheap and he should help spread the floor. But the biggest question for the Bulls—the answer to which will decide whether they can go all the way next season—is how quickly Derrick Rose resembles the player he was two years ago. Rose was wise in sitting out the entire season, but now expectations will be sky-high in the Windy City. If he can get back to something close to his MVP winning form, the Bulls will be a threat to all.
New York Knicks
The Knicks probably missed their brief title window with this current crop of very good, but not great players. Miami may be vulnerable this season, but the Bulls, Pacers, and hated cross-town rival Nets, are all much improved. Last season the Knicks looked like world beaters at times—combining Carmelo Anthony’s shot-making with great 3-point shooting—and at other times, particularly during the playoffs, they looked distinctly average.
The personnel remains the same this season, with one notable addition: Andrea Bargnani. The trade for Il Mago is a head-scratcher, to say the least. The Knicks were a good offensive team last season, where were lacking was in the rebounding and rim protection department, and Bargnani’s a distinct minus in both those facets of the game. The team will continue to rely heavily on Melo for offensive production, and whatever they can get out of Amar’e Stoudemire and J.R Smith (gulp). At the defensive end the onus is once again on Tyson Chandler to bail out anyone and everyone. He was poor by his high standards last season, and his form will be a massive factor in how far the Knicks go this year.
For the past five or six years the Atlanta Hawks have been stuck in a sort of NBA no man’s land—never good enough to be a legitimate title threat, but too good to miss the playoffs and rebuild with a high draft pick. This isn’t for a want of trying either. G.M. Danny Ferry pulled off quite the coup shipping Joe Johnson’s bloated contract to the Nets last year, and this season the Hawks decided to let long-time star, Josh Smith, walk in free-agency. Nevertheless the Hawks remain a solid playoff caliber team in a relatively weak Eastern Conference and look set to finish in that sixth to eighth seed region.
Replacing Josh Smith at the power-forward spot for the Hawks is former Utah Jazz standout, Paul Millsap. It’s unclear why the market was so low on Millsap, a criminally underrated forward, but the Hawks snapped him up for a bargain two-year, $18 million contract. He’ll be paired with Al Horford, another severely underrated NBA player. In the backcourt Lou Williams, after missing most of last season, makes a return and should give Atlanta a much-needed scoring punch—and the ability to get to the line—while Jeff Teague should continue to emerge as one of the best young point-guards in the league. One interesting Hawk to keep an eye on is German rookie Dennis Schroeder, who looked great in Summer League and who many are comparing to Rajon Rondo.
Nick Gilbert can retire for the foreseeable future as the trips to the draft lottery are over for the Cleveland Cavaliers—or at least they should be. Three years on from LeBron James’ departure, and the self-loathing that came with it, the Cavs now have a roster that should be able to win 40 games and snare a low playoff seed. In the off-season Cleveland added last year’s NBA Sixth Man of the Year candidate, Jarrett Jack—a more than able deputy for Kyrie Irving—and perennial headcase/uber-talented centre, Andrew Bynum. The Bynum pick-up is intriguing and how he plays after a year out from injury will go a long way to deciding how good this Cavaliers team can be. If he’s anything close to being the Andrew Bynum we witnessed in L.A. then watch out Eastern Conference. A healthy Bynum-Anderson Varejao pairing at centre will make Cleveland a rebounding machine.
Of course, for the Cavs to make the playoffs last year’s core will need to continue to develop. Kyrie Irving is already a genuine NBA superstar, but Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters will be expected to make a jump, and number one overall pick, Anthony Bennett, will have to contribute at the 3 or 4 spot.
As it is with the Cavaliers, this is the year that the Washington Wizards should emerge from ineptitude and make the post-season. Last year the team and coach, Randy Wittman, were given a free pass due to crippling injuries at the beginning of the season to Nene and star man John Wall. Without that aforementioned duo the team was awful offensively, but remained competent at the defense end. When Wall eventually returned the Wizards essentially became a .500 team, and that’ll be more than good enough for the eight seed this time around.
The Wizards added back-up point-guard, Eric Maynor, in the off-season, but otherwise stuck with the team that had a decent finish to last season. Of course, they added small-forward, Otto Porter, in the draft and he should be able to contribute at the defensive end right away. The key to the Wizards playoff chances, however, is their backcourt pairing of John Wall and Bradley Beal. Beal looked like one of the most composed rookies in the league last season and his sweet shooting stroke should complement Wall’s dribble penetration. And ultimately, Wall will need to justify that newly minted $80 million contract this season. He looked great at the back end of last season, and that will need to continue if the Wizards are to make a jump into the playoffs.